The William Morris Society in the US will host a session at the 2024 Modern Language Association Annual Convention, to be held January 4-7, 2022 in Philadelphia, PA.

Rethinking William Morris for the Twenty-first Century

“Technological Overstimulation and Ecological Healing: William Morris in the Fragmented 21st Century”
Joshua Fagan (Columbia University)

Abstract: Though too often criticized as a thinker overly concerned with the past, William Morris expressed a fascination with the new: particularly new paths toward imagining connection and community outside commodified, profit-centric social structures. Morris did not innately despise technology, but he did detest technology that existed only for the generation of profit, instead of for the benefit of individuals and communities. The contemporary overstimulation caused by the overabundance of information available at a moment’s notice fits what Morris believes was not only useless but actively harmful about technology. From this perspective, the problem is not as banal as smartphones/social media, but rather the commodification of information, providing a bombardment of useless and often disorientating and distorted data. The solution Morris offers in works like News from Nowhere is largely ecological. In the attention paid to the importance of non-exploitative and non-commodified interactions between society and the natural environment, he anticipates the contemporary environmentalist movement. What Morris emphasizes is not merely closeness to nature, but rather new conceptions of community and interpersonal connection. In contrast to the numbing waterfall of excess information, which has no function other than to maximize rote engagement and generate corporate profit, I argue that the ecological vision Morris emphasizes is fundamentally restorative and healing. Morris celebrates not the fragmented connections provided by a sea of context-less information, but the true connections provided by cooperation and common experience. These are connections with a viscerally felt physical and social environment, connections that create close community and interrelatedness instead of alienation.

“The 19th Century Population Crisis and the World Without Work in Morrisian Utopia”
Seohyon Jung (KAIST – School of Digital Humanities & Computational Social Sciences, South Korea)

Abstract: A resident of the future society in William Morris’s News from Nowhere joyously exclaims, “Fancy people not liking to work!—it’s too ridiculous.” In the context of the shifting definitions of work since the outbreak of COVID-19 and renewed collective attention to the issues related to population, Morris’s utopian vision from the 19th century offers us new insights into the complex relationship between unemployment, overwork, and the population crisis. Although Morris did not deal explicitly with the population crisis in his works, forms of labor and the sense of abundance in News from Nowhere invite reading his work alongside the nineteenth-century population theories. By juxtaposing Morris’s critique of the capitalist economic system in News from Nowhere with his radical perspective on work and art in Useful Work versus Useless Toil, this study claims that Morris believed that the capitalist logic caused the tragedies of population crisis including unemployment and overwork. Especially with the growing interest in alternative economic systems that prioritize sustainability, equity, and communal well-being, reassessment of Morris’s utopian system through the discourse of the Capitalocene will allow us to rethink the fundamental conditions under which the “population” is conceived as a “problem.” My analysis focuses on the ways in which failures of the labor system are recognized in News from Nowhere to discuss the significance of mass labor and its relation to the crisis of individualized, isolated work in the twenty-first century which complicates the idea of population. This study ultimately aims to demonstrate the historical intimacy between the population crisis and the idea of work that developed rapidly by the end of the nineteenth century and has continued to shape our world in the twenty-first century.

“Finding the Earthly Paradise: Radical Futurity in William Morris”
Aaron Bartlett (University of Maryland, College Park)

Abstract: William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise is, in many respects, an unusual epic. For one, the act of storytelling itself more drives the text than any one narrative. The twelve Classical books of the epic become twelve months and twenty-four tales drawn from myth and history. The Earthly Paradise has been little studied (in no small part thanks to its extreme length), but it is a key expression of the author’s political and artistic values. Morris conceptualizes the twenty-four tales of his Earthly Paradise as dried flowers pressed in a book:

So in these pages month by month I show
Some portion of the flowers that erst did blow
In lovely meadows of the varying land
Wherein erewhile I had the luck to stand.

It would be easy to misconstrue the significance of this metaphor. The Earthly Paradise is not just interested in the medieval and mythic past for its own sake, but in preserving and recovering something from it. Put another way, The Earthly Paradise addresses itself to the present and future.

In this paper I explore the ways Morris uses voice, form, and structure to shape a vision of futurity in The Earthly Paradise. Much like Morris’s future society in News from Nowhere, The Earthly Paradise builds a radical form of futurity by bending the progression of past, present, and future into a cyclical arc that mirrors natural cycles. Moving from month to month, looking back to move forward, Morris quietly lays the ground for an Earthly Paradise yet to be. The poem, then, both addresses itself to the future and seeks to reorient its contemporary readers in order to create that future, reconfiguring the relationship between humanity, art, and nature. In this respect, Morris offers a significant precedent for what has become the most important task of the twenty-first century: imagining just such a radically reoriented future.

Rethinking Morris in this light raises significant questions about the role of literature in reshaping society and in a reshaped society. Morris’s conception of futurity in News from Nowhere is famously post-historical, and the author himself seems troubled about the implications of this—where are literature and history left in an age out of time as we know it? The Earthly Paradise offers one answer in its innovative form and its bold mytho-poetic voice. As we seek to build a more stable and sustainable world in the face of multiple ongoing crises, we still may glean something invaluable from Morris’s pages interleaved with “tender petals.”

“Morris in the 1890s: The Appeal for Unity”
Florence Boos (University of Iowa)

In 1890, William Morris was forced out of the Socialist League that he had helped found (though he also continued as a leading member of the Hammersmith Socialist Society). Yet, the last six years of his life was a period of remarkable political activity and reflection as he attempted to support the socialist movement as both elder statesman and advisor. 

Based on the essays and newspaper articles in my forthcoming Morris on Socialism: Uncollected Essays (Fall 2023, Edinburgh University Press), this talk will examine Morris’s valedictory words as he sought to promote socialist unity, aid local initiatives where possible, and advocate for historical preservationist and environmental causes. He also worked tirelessly to convey what he saw as needed correctives to the various factions of the left: Radicals, Fabians, members of the Social Democratic Federation, anarchists, and supporters of the nascent International Labor Party. My remarks will emphasize how Morris sought to offer his admonitions tactfully, but bluntly, to each of these varied audiences, as well as to warn against compromises that would ultimately lead to defeat.

Finally, one must ask (127 years after his death), how prescient were Morris’s predictions? Since many of the problems he identified are still with us, which of his warnings and suggestions—on such topics as global capitalism, social inequality, education, imperialism, violence, media bias, and the limits of a partial democracy—still retain value? Are there important ways some of his assumptions might be updated or extended to confront the issues that he and his contemporaries were unable to foresee?